Imagine opening your front door and finding a man lying on your porch bleeding from several stab wounds while screaming for help as he’s being viciously attacked. Imagine not being able to open your screen door due to a body that’s pressed against it, beaten unconscious with a sock that had two combination locks inside. Imagine your next door neighbors getting into a heated argument over drugs that caused one to literally gouge the other’s eye out, or your neighbor across the street murdering a guy then carving letters on his forehead after he dies. Imagine sharing a meal with friends in your dining room and someone approaches one of your guests from behind and plunges a knife into their neck, causing blood to gush out and land on your face and food. Or imagine someone’s bottom lip being bitten into and ripped off, and blood flowing between the fingers of the victim. Now imagine such brutality occurring in your community so frequently that you’re no longer shocked or horrified, but instead you find it more an inconvenience than a terrible tragedy. This is the community I’ve lived in for over 35 years.
Within the last two years, there have been 19 homicides in the Alabama prison system, causing it to have the highest homicide rate in the country. There are daily assaults, often so severe that ambulances and helicopters are a constant necessity in order to save lives. Alabama’s prison culture resembles a jungle, where you’re either predator or prey, victim or victor. When a lion jumps on the back of an animal, grabs it by the neck, smashes it to the ground, breaks its back, it’s not doing a bad thing. It’s doing what’s appropriate, what’s in its nature. Survival. We’ve all experienced a fight-or-flight response to danger. But what if there is nowhere to flee, that your life or death is determined by how brutal you’re capable of being. Requests for safety and protection too often fall on deaf ears, and can easily tag you a snitch, which would put you in even greater danger. And if the prison officials are forced to get involved before there’s serious bloodshed, you will be asked to sign a living agreement, promising to end the quarrel or be placed in segregation. But once you’ve seen how someone can magically remove their handcuffs and attack another prisoner who’s still wearing his, you realize that segregation isn’t safe, that you need to learn the trick with the handcuffs.
Some of the savagery I’ve witnessed would cause an average person to question their sanity, to call their Mama and say I want to come home. It’s as if an apocalyptic beast is roaming these prisons with an unquenchable appetite for blood, mostly black men’s blood. And the officials in Montgomery are contributing to our demise by pretending the bestiality that thrives within the walls is under control, but it’s not. The overcrowdedness, the mind-numbing procedures, the rules and regulations that are enforced by too many racist ego-tripping officers, as well as black officers who believe they must be just as cruel to prove they are not like us, each ill-equipped to handle the unrestrained authority they possess. Prisons are supposed to be about rehabilitation, about preparing us to be productive members of society. But instead it cripples and stagnates growth, causing degradation, anger and frustration, often creating a worse version of the person who arrived.
Some may feel that this is what we deserve, that we lost our right to be treated as human beings once we broke the law, not worthy of any consideration nor second chances. But one should not make a final judgment on a person until he or she is dead, because, until then, there’s room for change, to be better and do better. Yes there are many in prison that should never be placed in society ever again. Yet there are so many good, responsible, changed men who simply want another chance to prove their worth. But the way things look, we may not survive to receive the chance.